In the spirit of Black History Month, my family and I have been reading about Anna Julia Cooper, the 4th African American woman to earn a doctorate, something she accomplished in 1924. Anna Julia Cooper was as fearless as she was powerful, as sublime as she was effortless in her discussions not only on the plight of black women in general, but the need for women to attain higher education. The professor in me is always alert to women who paved the way for me to call myself a professor. Women like Anna Julia Cooper, with her profound book ‘ A Voice from the South’ which urged black women to not be mute or voiceless, but happily expectant and ready to add our voice to the experiment and experience we call America. One statement she wrote in the book that made me alert is: ‘Woman, Mother, your responsibility is one that might make angels tremble.’ This statement was eloquent then as it is perfect for me today. I look forward to the future always with zeal, knowing that the many words of Anna Julia Cooper will be my guide. Keep her in mind.
Keep following your path!
One of my favorite pictures from homeschooling last year is of my daughter and her brother walking together. My daughter, the artist, describes it as walking their own way, like when we go for walks along Forest Park. I especially love the picture because I see myself in my children, walking my own path, even on this daily blog on parenting and academic productivity. It isn’t ‘or’ for me, but ‘and’. My productivity in academia is very much tied to my role as a mother. And following my path with asking and listening to good questions, make the connection sterling.
In the past 15 years I have known my mentor Dr Collins Airhihenbuwa, he has always shared the importance of not only asking good questions but actually questioning the questions asked. To him, we all need to learn to become comfortable with being uncomfortable especially when asking tough questions. I started grant writing and studying the sustainability of evidence based research, because, like a true mentee, I wanted to become comfortable asking uncomfortable good questions. Like, why, after decades of spending millions on research in resource limited settings, after decades of collecting data, even decades of collaboration with key stakeholders, do most evidence-based interventions, particularly does deemed effective never, ever last? We the researchers collect our data, publish our findings in the most prestigious journals, present our findings in top conferences, maybe even return to present it to key stakeholders and then we move on to the next problem, the next grant even, maybe on the same topic, but with another group of unsuspecting community eager for our expertise without understanding the cost.
Personally, and if there is anything that I have learnt from the pandemic, the time has come for such research to end. Of course we may never be able to solve every problem, of course we may not have the courage to ask the uncomfortable but good questions necessary, of course when we even ask them, we may fail, but I am committed to following my own path to ask them anyway. I am interested in implementing sustainable evidence based research because they are rare, because the communities I work with deserve them, the participants themselves desperately need them and because it is time we actually plan from the beginning for them. Planing for sustainable research is necessary if lasting is going to be more than just technical, more than another data collection exercise. Do I have the answer on how to implement them? The truth is, that is the beauty of following your path. When you look at the possibilities or even the opportunities we have squandered when we don’t think about sustainability, when we don’t put ourselves in the shoes of those we serve, then it should not come as a surprise why we are still in the middle of this pandemic.
I understand the work ahead. I am prepared to try and even fail on this journey. And it’s my path. Every researcher, every research, every good question asked in the service of people, especially in settings constrained with resources, should have an obligation to last. And when you know that she who ask these questions, however difficult or even different they maybe, however uncomfortable they may be perceived, never misses their way, then why not ask them. Keep following your path.
Keep good questions that last!
I have been thinking lately about good questions. What are they and why do we need to nurture and teach good questioning skills? By day, I am a global health researcher passionate and committed to asking questions, enduring ones focused on creating sustainable health interventions. I often begin with a grant. For to conduct research in a setting already limited with resources, access to funding is crucial. So to are questions, not just any questions, but good ones that lead to funding.
Good questions have helped to test the limits of my grant writing abilities. They pushed me to try everything, all the way, until I get the outcome I want, including the grants that allow me to address pressing public health issues. And when you find a good question to ask, questions that are enduring, it just so tremendous. And so I do feel a responsibility to ask these good questions. I have always felt and continue to feel that no one is really asking those tough but good questions. I remember after collecting my data for my dissertation on child malaria diagnosis, I told my participants, some mothers of children under 5, that my research has ended. Some asked why? It’s not like their child’s malaria has ended. They were right.
I am aware of the fact that it was rare and still rare to ask good questions overtime. Aware that though some may state they are interested in asking these questions, such as how might they last, they are never really prepared to go the distance. So I assumed two things: 1) good questions focused on lasting, focused on sustaining my global health work matters; and 2) if I ask these good questions, if I continue to hone in on what they entail, planning for it from the beginning, with the right people, learning what it takes, adapting where necessary but nurturing the questions overtime, then it will become universal. Good questions focused on lasting will become the norm.
I am hoping to train the next generation of scholars committed from the beginning to plan to ask good questions. My goal is to help them become prepared to roar if they choose to, with asking more enduring lasting questions. I call this PLAN or how people learn to adapt or nurture whatever good questions they may have. I finally wrote a research paper on it that I intend to submit this year. My goal with the paper is to a start the dialogue necessary to train a generation of scholars committed to making the necessary plan to become enduring questionologists.
The choice in the end is always up to us. We may choose to ask the typical questions that allow us to get by for the next 1-5 years, or we may go the distance and plan to become comfortable even with questioning the questions asked. When your goal is to remain, when your mission is to last, then asking all sorts of good questions becomes a necessity. We all have the power to think long and deep about how our questions can and should be good. We should all be willing to explore limits of the questions we ask for as long as the issues remain. For to be good, to hone in and polish the questions, to a gleaming finish is illuminating, exceptionally powerful to me. Keep asking good questions. Plan for them too as the world desperately needs them.
Keep running your own race!
Homeschooling 2020 came to an end on Thursday/Friday. This keep is in praise of all the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncle and even friends of families that helped make it work. It’s also in praise of all children, their courage, resilience through this pandemic of a lifetime. Many may assume that because children are home that schooling should be easy. I beg to differ. We struggled, though beautifully with our homeschooling experience. There were many ups and downs and my children did their best to adapt to school now being at home. Prior to the start of the fall, I was not eager to start homeschooling knowing that I would also have work obligations occurring during this period and my anxiety levels were high. Of course as is typical of work, and with the exception of few fearless leaders, most meetings and obligations occurred during this period as if our children weren’t home. I choose not to be distracted by work, given that we were living through a pandemic. Homeschooling was more critical for me and my children.
So in praise of our survival, I went running yesterday. My typical 4 mile weekend race. It’s also my release and reflection time. As I ran, I reflected on how we made homeschooling work for us, our way. Homeschooling for us was assertive, loving, full of long sweet memories of art, nature, poetry, reading, religion, science, learning and questions, lots and lots of questions. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. In the end, for homeschooling 2020, we did it our way. As 2021 approaches, as we all look forward to the return of regular schooling, homeschooling is an urgent reminder once more to keep running my race through life, my way. It’s my suggestion to whoever reads this. Life is too short to not do it your way.
Keep people in mind!
It seems so simple, that people should matter with efforts to curtail a pandemic. Yet we are our own worst enemies. Case in point, an essay I read yesterday on the blog sapiens one why the CDC needs social science. Robert Hahn an anthropologist and epidemiologist who recently retired from the CDC, shared insights of how people actual interact, their behaviors, needs and even concerns, have yet to penetrate the soul of the nation’s top primary health agency. And we wonder why we are in the mess we find ourselves?
As a public health researcher, why people refuse to wear mask for example, remains one of the public health mysteries of 2020, and one that truly lacks any answer besides the fact that we still don’t keep people in mind. Robert Hahn takes this a step further and offers another explanation. The idea that sickness remains a biological concept. As a result, how even sick people react, what behaviors they engage in even while sick is often an afterthought and not a forethought. It’s no surprise then, that this pandemic continues to persist, 10 months later.
I’ll like to add one more thought to his explanation and that is people should be at the heart of every response to public health, especially during and after a pandemic. We also need to do more polylogue or confront people with diverse and sometimes conflicting points of views that require critical evaluation. These forms of engagement with people will be crucial with efforts to ensure vaccine uptake. Myself and my household are ready for the vaccine. But I do recognize that some folks may not be and so it’s our duty to keep them in mind on the journey to end this pandemic for good.
Keep being ambitious!
Yesterday, in yet another failed grant attempt, my proposal was described as ‘overly ambitious’. Cambridge’s dictionary describe the word ambitious as ‘having a strong desire to succeed.’ In the grant writing world, the word ambitious has negative connotations. It’s one of those dreaded words senior reviewers lash on junior grant writers to remind us to stay in our place. When all else fails, when even the grant has some merit to it, the reviewers use the word to remind you of the hierarchy inherent in the grant writing world. Bottom line, no one wants their proposal to be described as ambitious. Yet, majority of all my proposals, most of my failed ones, have been called ambitious on so many occasions. In fact I wrote so many ambitious grants that failed before landing on the grant of a life time. Ambitious questions are all I know.
Now and in the words of James, 1: 2-4, I consider it pure joy when my grant proposals are described as ambitious especially in the beginning because I know now that the testing of my abilities produces perseverance, produces a profound commitment to write more beautiful questions, questions that are truly ambitious in nature given pressing global health issues, this pandemic being a perfect example. My goal now is to truly own the word and so I thank reviewers from reminding me to keep being ambitious, keep having a strong desire to succeed. For when I am ambitious, when the work is described in the beginning as having the determination to succeed, the end makes more sense.
Ambitious questions are a necessity. Ambitious scientists are critical. I intend to keep being ambitious so as to finish my goal of research that is truly sustainable in resource limited settings. It will truly take ambitious questions and I am so prepared to keep asking them, no matter how many times I fail.
Keep public health in mind during this pandemic!
When the history of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is written, what will those of us in public health note we accomplished? How would we present the success and failures with proactively maintaining measures such as wearing masks or practicing social distance or even avoiding large crowds?Where did we go wrong with taking care of the public’s health? How did the public not understand that ending the pandemic depended on us, you and me?
These questions trouble me as our nation recorded 184,000 new cases yesterday according to NPR. With more new cases, come deaths and the winter season has not fully begun. At the present time, it remains that all our pleas to practice basic public health measures is wasted. All the valuable advice and even education presented about the virus by key experts are unknown or unheeded and therefore not utilized by the public. The next couple of months is perhaps the most difficult that the public will experience with a pandemic that shows no sign of abating, respects no authority, and inflicts more harm than good. Not to heed the public health’s simple and clear messages, like wear a mask, or practice social distance, is equivalent to stepping backwards or rounding the corner to the beginning of the pandemic. We keep rounding the corner to the start of the pandemic and frankly, I am tired. With more cases, come more deaths? Whom shall we blame? Ourselves?
The public’s health is very fragile now. Do your part to actually end the pandemic by heeding the advice from public health leaders. Let it not be known, that your loved one tested positive or even died. Ignorance to public health, whether a blessing or a curse is real. Whatever your disposition today, know the virus has its own agenda and doesn’t care about yours. The next couple of months are indeed critical and for the public’s health, it will depend on you and me.
Keep claiming your space!
Two days ago, I read a Hollywood News Reporter story (here) on Shonda Rhimes. Here was a woman who produced some 70 hours of annual television in 256 territories; making tens of millions of dollars for herself and more than $2 billion for Disney, but yet in constant battle with her network ABC, over content, over budget for her series Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder.
In 2017, after 15 years with ABC, she left for a first-of-its-kind, nine-figure overall deal at Netflix. However in February 2018, according to the report, before Rhimes had even found a first project to sink her teeth into, Ryan Murphy, another television shown runner inked a deal, reportedly worth as much as $300 million, or double Rhimes’ then-reported sum, and the media narrative shifted. ‘It was no longer, simply, “Shonda Rhimes, trailblazer,” but rather about the now booming eight- and nine-figure market for producers, with at least a few reporters wondering, publicly, why the Black female showrunner appeared to be making so much less than the white male one.’
After reading this section, I saw myself in Shonda. I saw multiple black women who work extensively but rarely claim their space however they define it. Our spaces are never ours to own. Our spaces are never ours to even brag about. Even Rhimes described feeling obsessed watching Murphy not only claim, but own his space. But when she was awarded for Luminary award at an Elle’s Women in Hollywood event, she came to the conclusion ‘that men brag and women hide, even when they don’t deserve to brag, men brag. When men do deserve to brag, they’re good at it.’ But because of the award, because she was being celebrated for inspiring other women for the first time ever, and on behalf of women everywhere, Shonda bragged and rightfully so. Not only is she a black executive producer in Hollywood, she let it be known that she was ‘the highest paid show runner on television.’ She claimed her space even though it felt uncomfortable. She claimed her space not only for herself but for every other women she inspires everyday.
Coincidentally, claim your space is the title to a paper I co-wrote with colleagues years ago. In it we shared an African proverb to illustrate why leadership and claiming your space matters. The proverb simply states: He who is leading and has no one following is only taking a walk. Leaders we argue, all have to do the necessary work to build up the visions of those around them and not just their own. I try my best to embody this style of enlightened leadership with the students I mentor.
But the African quote on the section we wrote on claiming your space, which simply states: ‘Until the lions produce their own historians, the story of the hunt would glorify only the hunter’– is my favorite proverbs of all times. Shonda Rhimes, is the lion of our times, claiming her rightful space as the highest paid show runner on television. Her story, her resilience, her ability to inspire is the reason why we should all do our part to keep claiming our space and brag about it too.
Keep fostering innovation for Nigeria by Nigerians at 60!
In 1983, Chinua Achebe wrote a very short book entitled ‘The Trouble with Nigeria.’ In it he suggested that the trouble with Nigeria then was ‘simply and squarely a failure of leadership…the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility which are the hallmarks of true leadership.’ A student asked one day, why Nigeria, why are all my National Institutes of Health (NIH) research grants focused on Nigeria. My response to her and to others who ask is why not Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. If we succeed in Nigeria, we can succeed anywhere else. Nigeria is full of people who have the will, the ability and the vision to lead health, it’s discovery, it’s innovation.
As the country celebrates its 60th independence today, the question for me is whether Achebe’s sentiments remains, whether the failure of leadership still prevails, or whether Nigerians with the will, ability, and vision to lead health will ever emerge. At some point, thoughtful Nigerians have to rise up so those leaders emerge to make an impact on the nation. Nigeria and Nigerians all over the world have the ability to facilitate innovation with health. With the exception of few, the fear that should nightly haunt its leaders, Achebe noted (but does not) is that those leaders (for health in this case) are not assuming or fulfilling that destiny in Nigeria.
For me personally, as I reflect on this day about Nigeria at sixty, with Achebe’s words in my mind, I would have concluded that the trouble for Nigeria sixty years from today will not only be a failure of leadership but also a failure of innovation, a failure to provide the opportunities for a critical mass of Nigerians to do something different that adds value.
The ongoing pandemic alongside the zeal of some Nigerians have changed my thinking. Many Nigerians have risen and continue to rise to the occasion to lead health in ways often not discussed, shared, highlighted or praised. From the molecular test kit for COVID19 developed by the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research that can produce results in 40 minutes, to the life-saving work of Temi Giwa-Tubosun who delivers medical supplies to hospitals in Nigeria, or to my ongoing research I-TEST-innovative tools to expand youth friendly HIV self/testing for Nigerian youth led by Nigerian youth.
The simple, the very serious, but simple solution for Nigeria today and beyond is innovation. Whether it’s sustaining, whether it’s disruptive, whether it’s breakthrough, it won’t matter. For Nigeria to facilitate mankind’s advancement, doing its part to create something different that adds value is its destiny. At sixty, to Nigeria, my hope for the future, is that we keep unleashing innovative solutions, particularly with health. Today, it is time to take a hard and unsentimental look at the critical question of innovation for Nigeria by Nigerians. Happy Independence Day!
Antiracists must fight to survive!
Yesterday award-winning author, Dr. Ibram Kendi lectured on ‘How to be an antiracist,’ at Saint Louis University as part of our college’s Social Justice Annual Lecture. In his book of the same title, Dr. Kendi talked about how antiracist must remain ‘fighters, tireless, durable,’ but fight in other to succeed.
There were so many questions I wanted to ask from the book but we only had one hour with Dr. Kendi so I’ll ask them here. What if we fight and still have knees on our neck? What if we fight and still get colon cancer like you did or breast cancer like your wife did all at a young age? How do you fight a system truly rotten to it’s core with tumors in some cases or no chance at life in others, not for George Floyd or Breonna Taylor and the list goes on and on? How do you dismantle the system of its racist policies with tools that are off the system, tools that are focused on self-interest? Audre Lourde said it best, ‘we cannot use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.’ Can antiracists still hold conservative views in 2020? Dr. Amber Johnson’s eloquent question still rings bells in my hears and I am not sure what your actual response was (not your fault my kids were listening too with my 8year old daughter inspired to see a real-life ‘book writer’).
You shared a W.E.B Du Bois quote where he asked Black people ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ To that you replied and in 2020, ‘How does it feel to be a solution?’ I am guessing this is what you mean by antiracists must fight. Antiracists are the solution and the only way solutions have a chance to survive is to fight.
Antiracists fight so that opportunities and outcomes are equal between groups. Antiracists fight so that policies, not people, are blamed for societal problems. Antiracists fight so that nearly everyone has enough. Antiracists fight for power to become mainstream and ideas common sense until success is achieved. Success, Dr. Kendi noted, will be based on what antiracists are ‘willing to do.’
We can survive metastatic racism just as you survived metastatic stage-4 colon cancer and your wife with stage-2 breast cancer. It will take a fight for us all to treat racism like we treat cancer. Listening to you last night, gave me the hope and believe in the possibilities of fighting to become the solution. Fighting to transform our society. Fighting to give humanity a chance to survive. It will take a fight for us all to survive and like you, I am ready to fight.